Andy Coyne speaks to the founders of London-based organic baby food start-up Mia & Ben, which is using nascent technology in an attempt to “revolutionise the convenience baby puree sector”.
Following their experience offering freshly made soup via two London retail outlets, German entrepreneurs and foodies Daniel Auner and Karina Gentgen have turned their attention to setting up an organic baby food brand, Mia & Ben, and believe HPP, a bacteria-killing pressure process they are using, gives its chilled product an edge over shelf-stable rivals in which heat is usually used in the preservation process. This traditional process destroys nutrients, Mia & Ben say.
Mia & Ben promises to give babies the sensory experience of eating real ingredients as close to their natural state as possible, helping to train their “delicate taste buds,” as well as offering parents “all the assurances of product quality and safety assured by HPP”.
just-food: Before baby food you had retail outlets in London selling soup. How did that come about?
Daniel Auner: We both studied in London and then I worked in banking. I liked the food that was available in the city but I was aware that you couldn’t get good soup. That’s why I launched Soup de Jour with an outlet in Soho.
Karina Gentgen: This was a stage before I joined. My background is in business and foreign languages. I joined Soup de Jour when a second shop opened in the City of London.
just-food: What was the experience like?
Daniel Auner: It was hard but we learnt a lot about food from people in the industry. I was always very interested in healthy food but food production was a learning experience. We started to understand about food being pasteurised or sterilised. We had to leave the Soho shop as our rental contract was cancelled.
just-food: The second shop closed as well and you decided to set up a baby food business. Why baby food and not soup?
Daniel Auner: There have been a lot of developments in soup in the last 20 years and it is a lot more transparent now. There was a gap in the market for baby food. We had a problem with pasteurised or sterilised products. We thought it could be done in another way. And, at the soup outlets, we had had so many young parents asking us if we could make a fresh product for their baby. That developed into an idea.
Karina Gentgen: We realised that while other sectors had undergone significant innovation, baby food production hadn’t evolved to meet the demands of modern parents. So we made it our mission to change that.
just-food: What were your first steps?
Daniel Auner: We returned to Berlin in early 2017 to start to understand the product with the help of the local university [the food technology department of the Technical University of Berlin]. That resulted, after two years, in Mia & Ben and the Mia & Ben Institute.
just-food: How did you go about funding the project?
Daniel Auner: We got early-stage funding from UK angel investors and a German strategic investor. There have been two funding rounds. We also got an European Union funding grant.
just-food: How much have you raised altogether?
Daniel Auner: It’s in the high six digits.
just-food: Why did you decide to launch the brand in London and not Berlin?
Daniel Auner: The idea was born in London and we were always aiming for it to be launched in the UK market.
Karina Gentgen: We decided the English retail environment would be interesting for us. It’s a bit more innovative than the German market.
just-food: What were your next steps?
Karina Gentgen: We developed the brand with a creative agency [The Collaborators] and went on the hunt for the right partner to produce the products. We also worked with a dietician in the UK to find out which products were popular and would make sense for a baby of six months onwards. We chose the name Mia & Ben as these were the most popular baby names across the UK and Germany in 2016. We also did market research as we wanted to get our core messages across to groups of parents. This went on for a year or more with testing panels. And we found an experienced production partner who was experienced with baby food and also HPP technology.
just-food: HPP [High Pressure Processing] is your product’s USP. You’ve called it the latest innovation in food production technology. Why do you believe it’s important?
Daniel Auner: It’s a way of keeping food fresh for longer while retaining the content, colour and texture of fresh food. When the very high pressure is applied to the product, bacteria does not grow and so the food doesn’t go bad. These are chilled products but you can take them out of the fridge for up to six hours.
just-food: What is wrong with the existing products in the market?
Daniel Auner: Typical methods such as pasteurisation and sterilisation are known to destroy valuable nutrients and adversely affect the colour and texture of fresh fruits and vegetables,
just-food: Baby food is an extremely competitive category. So why is no one else using this process?
Daniel Auner: It is quite a new thing. In the US one or two brands are doing it. The technology is there.
just-food: Won’t your competitors simply adopt the same technology if they see it has appeal to consumers?
Daniel Auner: It would be difficult for them to change people’s perception of them if they are offering ambient products. Our view is that we don’t think baby food should be older than the baby itself.
just-food: You have stated you are committed to further innovation with 50% of your budget going into to R&D. Tell me about the Mia & Ben Institute.
Daniel Auner: We set this up so we could develop new products and better recipes. We have two people with PhDs in our team, which shows our ambition in this area. Of the ten people working here, half are in R&D.
just-food: You’ve won listings with online grocery delivery service Ocado in the UK and with Irish retailer Dunnes. Was this difficult to achieve?
Daniel Auner: You can only really produce products when you know you’ve got listings. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. It’s then about getting the right message for retailers. Its not a product you will find in the discounters. The growth in the category is either in private label or something different and special.
just-food: You’ve set the price point for your 100g pouches at GBP1.59 (US$2.01). What’s the thinking there?
Daniel Auner: It is a premium product. You are looking at a 20-30% premium over shelf-stable products.
just-food: Are you looking for listings anywhere else apart from the UK and Ireland?
Daniel Auner: We are talking to [supermarket group] Edeka in Germany.
just-food: What are your sales targets?
Daniel Auner: I’d rather not say at this stage.
just-food: In a line, what’s your ambition?
Daniel Auner; We are looking to be number one in fresh baby food.
Karina Gentgen: We want to create a future where delicious fresh food for infants is always within reach, on shelf, at home and on the go.